Saturday, June 28, 2014

If I knew then

It's my turn to blog at YA Outside the Lines, where we're writing letters to our younger, aspiring selves. An excerpt from mine:

"... I need to tell you this part, too: after you publish again, you will still doubt yourself. Publishing doesn’t “fix” anything. It brings you much joy, interesting opportunities, and a little money. But it’s not a magic ticket ..."

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Memory prompts

Just for fun and warming up, some possible writing prompts:

What was it like when you stayed home sick from school?

How did you celebrate Independence Day while growing up? (If you're not in the US, pick a different holiday.)

How was alcohol handled in your house? What were the rules and customs around it?

Did you know your grandparents well, or not? What did you know about them?

What were your favorite games when you were little? With whom did you play them?

We never know what little details may catch, what incident or memory may be connected to a larger story. These are exercises in memory, in observation, in description. In standing outside what was once ordinary and familiar, and capturing it from a different perspective.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Active characters

There's a certain story pattern that I'm becoming more disenchanted with: the character who fights all sources of help and has to be dragged out of trouble or isolation by the repeated efforts of other characters. We all need a helping hand from time to time; we all benefit from those who reach out to us. Occasionally we will push away those who could help us. But at some point, a character who is going to grow will have to grab the helping hand, or seek it out. And secondary characters should not wait around forever for that moment, with endless patience and persistence, as if they have no lives of their own.

A character who is actively trying to help him/herself is also easier to root for. (Or a character who at least wants help, even if s/he doesn't know how get it, or has to fight off inner voices counseling a more self-destructive route.)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Green beans now

Today we attended the launch party for this book:


Bow Wow Wow! Green Beans Now?, a picture book by Jessica Dimuzio. It's the true story of two dogs who love green beans, and it discusses the organic gardening that produces those beans (among other vegetables). Appropriately enough, the launch party was held at Really Cooking with Robin, a caterer, cooking school, and food and kitchenware store focusing on healthy foods. (Their healthy chocolate mousse was divine.)

The author is a friend and critique partner of mine, and I've gotten to see her grow from an unpublished writer to the owner of her own business, Nature Tales and Trails, which includes two picture books, school visits, and nature education programs.

Making healthy food fun is important, and this book delivers with dog pictures, jokes, and sense-rich descriptions of the food woven in among practical information about gardening.

Thursday, June 19, 2014


Here are two interesting quotations from the book I'm reading (Fairyland, by Alysia Abbott):

1. "'What kind of writer are you if no one's heard of you, and you make no money?'"

(My answer to that would be: the usual kind.)

2. "'Be brave. If you're not, pretend to be. Nobody knows the difference.'"

(I've done an internet search to see if I can find the original source of this one. A few sites attribute it to H. Jackson Brown, Jr.)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Hawk story

Cornell Lab hosts a couple of cameras that have been keeping watch on a red-tailed hawk nest. Three young hawks hatched back in April, and--this being the fifth observed brood from this pair, were christened E1, E2, and E3, in order of hatching. This past weekend there was much excitement, as E2, the first young hawk to leave the nest (or "fledge") returned, while E1 and E3 were strutting and flapping their wings, making like they were going to fledge at any moment. The cameras are accompanied by a chat room, where chatters anxiously anticipated the first flights of these birds. Any time I looked in on the proceedings, there were about 2000 other people viewing the camera feed at the same time.

Think about that for a minute. 2000 people, all focused on one hawk's nest in Ithaca, NY--many of those people hundreds or thousands of miles from Ithaca. At Cornell, there are also volunteers who observe and help ensure the safety of the nest, and there are volunteers who moderate the chats and educate people about hawks.

On Saturday morning, E2 flew off the nest again, followed shortly by E1's maiden flight. After a few hours of having the nest all to himself for the first time in his life, during which he mostly stared pensively off the edge of the nest ledge, E3 fledged also.

The hawks spend their early fledgling time figuring out how to fly--their mistakes and clumsiness, their earnest flapping before they can become airborne, a reminder of what a miracle flight is. Birds learn quickly, so most of the birds we've seen in our lives are accomplished fliers who make it look easy. The fledglings remind us that, like much else in life, it takes practice.

Sadly, after only a day off the nest, E3 had a mishap when he perched under an automated greenhouse window vent. It closed on his right wing, breaking the bone. The hawk-watching community agonized over the fate of the injured bird, which was ultimately rescued by a wildlife rehabber and taken to an animal hospital. (E3 is now undergoing treatment; the vets are hopeful they can repair the wing and ultimately return him to the wild.)

I have been marveling at the resources, the care, the energy, that have gone into tending this one family of hawks. And here's my point: this is the power of story, the power of specific characters. Biologists could lecture all day long about the importance of hawks or any other animal, their magnificence, their role in the ecosystem--and most people's eyes would glaze over. But when you can show people a specific nest with individual animals, when people can watch and get to know one family, when they can follow a few birds' lives and root for an egg to hatch, a bird to take its first flight, a wing to heal--then they care in a way that grows into a more general understanding and caring about a much larger population.

That's what story does. We zoom in on a few characters and tell a specific story, encouraging readers to bond, hoping that the story's meaning will be extrapolated and generalized deeper and farther.

Saturday, June 14, 2014


I seem to be seeing this message a lot lately, in so many places and forms that I can't even remember them all:

Write from the inner voice. Don't be so swayed by a thousand external voices. Reach for truth. Make the emotional connection. Write with passion.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Testing assumptions

I took a writing workshop last weekend, and there was so much to it that it will take me a while to work through it all. One of the big take-home messages, though, was to be willing and open to fundamental revision. Not to get too attached to our words too soon. Not to think of revision as just polishing the draft we've already got down.

Everything is subject to change.

When I was in my mid-twenties and making some life changes, I reached the point where I was willing to question everything I thought I knew about myself: what I wanted out of life, what I was good at, what was best for me. I let go of assumptions and began to build back from the ground up. In some areas, I found that I wanted what I had always thought I wanted. Certain strengths and weaknesses were exactly where I had originally assumed them to be. But in other matters, I went in new directions. I tried new things, and they worked. I let go of other things and never missed them.

Change doesn't mean that what has come before was a waste of time, even if we spin 180 degrees in the other direction. It can be so hard to drop the baggage, but we are lighter without it.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Spelling bee

While recovering from a medical procedure recently (I'm fine, btw), I had the chance to see some of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. I don't think I've ever watched any of it before, though I've been peripherally aware of it through the years.

I was a good speller myself, winning classroom bees and sending the teacher to her books to find ever more challenging words ("camouflage," I remember, was one of them, and I was lucky that I had just read a book right before that with the word in it). I still have the dictionary I won as a prize in my junior-high spelling bee. But I never competed beyond that, or even considered it. I've had mixed feelings about the idea of such a high-stakes spelling competition. On one hand, I love language and spelling, and I considered spelling bees to be fun (I even like the chapter in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little Town on the Prairie where they have a spelling bee). On the other hand, I had to wonder how practical such a skill is, and whether it's really worth it for kids to study and memorize lists of such obscure words. (I would say that of the contest words I heard during the couple of hours that I watched, I recognized maybe 10-15% of them.)

What I didn't realize until I watched it was the puzzle-solving approach the contestants take, because they are often confronted with words they've never seen before. From pronunciation, definition, usage, and language of origin, they are often able to figure out the correct spelling. I became aware, as I watched, how much spelling is involved with the development of languages, and how many cues we get about learning language from context. Breaking down a new word requires certain analytical skills as well. I could easily see a good speller become fascinated by linguistics or cryptography. Interestingly, the bee's own website reports that among this year's contestants, the subject they most frequently cited as their favorite was math. This exercise in spelling is much less narrow and more relevant than I had guessed.

But who better to opine on the long-term usefulness of such an exercise than former contestants? The bee's blog contains a pretty frank interview with three former champions of how they've done, and what the bee meant in their lives. Some highlights:

"All agree that it gave them new skills - everything from better study habits and achievement in standardized tests to the knowledge that success will arrive when they work hard."

"'I want to make the Spelling Bee a feather in my cap, rather than the one thing I'm remembered for.'"

"... he has become much more easy going and relatable as a result of his experience. As a shy sixth grader, he never could have imagined being president of his senior class at Harvard."

"The Bee participants are also the most diverse group of people he has ever been involved with, Thampy said."

" ... it's those who aren't named champions who are often most able to turn their skills in new directions."

"... he learned that he can't judge himself against others. His validation, he said, must come internally."

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Getting unstuck

Allow me to point you to this awesome post by Beth Kephart on getting a novel unstuck. A sample:

"Say you're not completely sure about how to carry your dreamy idea about the story through. Do you sit? Do you moan? Do you eat all available chocolate? You could, but here is something else you might do ..."

I have used the strategy she describes, and found it helpful. I doubt there is any single writing tool that works all the time for everyone, but it's worth a try. (And there's always the chocolate.)

Monday, June 2, 2014

Plant memories

When I was growing up, my grandmother had a garden. I realized today that there are certain plants I always associate with her garden, because she always had those plants, and her yard was where I first encountered them. These plants include roses, coleus, phlox, and petunias.

I then began to think about what other associations I have with certain plants. Here are a few:

Spider plants: When I was growing up, spider plants became all the rage for a while, as houseplants. The thing to do was to put them in a hanging pot. (Hanging pots were also in fashion.) Preferably in a macrame holder. (The macrame probably tips you off as to when this was.)

Saguaro cactus: In my twenties, I started traveling on my own, after having spent most of my life in the northeastern US. I decided I wanted to see a desert, so I flew to southern Arizona on one of my vacations. I was still on the plane coming into Tucson when I saw my first saguaro. I was thrilled. Up until then, I had mostly just seen little cacti in pots, and I'd seen some prickly pear growing wild in New Jersey. But the saguaro is the emblematic, picture-perfect cactus, the kind you see on TV. I don't think I believed it really existed until then. To me, the saguaro is about the freedom I had then, the willingness to just pick a place on a map and get on a plane and go see it. (After saving up all year so that I could do so!)

Yarrow: This humble plant grew all over the yards and playgrounds where I grew up. We crushed its feathery foliage to catch its fragrance. The scent is sweet, somewhat grassy and somewhat minty.

Tulip: One of my grandmothers loves tulips, so I always think of her when I see them.

Poinsettia: For some reason, this tropical plant has become associated with Christmas in the US. You would see poinsettia everywhere in late December, and then they disappeared--unless you had a grandfather like mine. He kept the plants past Christmas, and by judicious pruning and fertilizing, managed to keep them alive indefinitely. I still remember seeing shelves full of his leggy poinsettia plants.

Lupines: I believe I first saw these during my traveling twenties, in the mountains of the American west. They usually seem to grow with bright red paintbrush plants, and the purple of the lupines against the scarlet of the paintbrush is one of my favorite wildflower scenes. A confession: The inner leap of joy I experience whenever I see lupines expresses itself somewhat strangely. When I see a stand of lupines, I usually call out in a high, tiny voice, as if I were a cartoon character: "Lupines!"

The writer in me will now point out that these kinds of associations can enrich our writing, both in the areas of characterization and setting. They don't have to be based around plants, of course. They could be based around songs, or food, or movies, or anything.